By Bryan Caplan
“What if a poor person gets sick, doesn’t have insurance, and can’t get friends, family, or charity to pay for treatment?”
“What if an elderly person gets defrauded out of his entire retirement and the perpetrator vanishes into thin air?”
“What if a child is starving on the street, and no one voluntarily feeds him?”
“What if someone just can’t find a job?”
If you’re a libertarian, you face what-ifs like this all the time. The point, normally, is to make you say, “Tough luck” and look like a monster. What puzzles me, though, is why libertarians rarely ask analogous questions. Like:
“What if Congress passes an unjust law, the President signs it, and the Supreme Court upholds it?”
“What if the government conscripts you to fight in an unjust war, and you die a horrible death?”
“What if a poor person drinks and gambles away his welfare check?”
“What if the government denies you permission to legally work?”
“What if the President decides your ethnicity is a national security risk and puts you in a concentration camp, and the Supreme Court declares his action constitutional?”
“What if a person lives an extremely unhealthy lifestyle, so by the time they’re retired, they’re in constant pain no matter how generous their Medicare coverage is?”
“What happens if a President lies to start a war, and voters don’t particularly care?”
Once you start the what-if game, it’s hard to stop. Name any political system. I can generate endless hypotheticals to aggravate its supporters. The right lesson to draw: Every political perspective eventually has to say “Tough luck” when confronted with well-crafted what-ifs. There’s nothing uniquely hard-hearted or cruel about libertarianism. Defenders of democracy, nationalism, liberalism, conservatism, the American Constitution, and social democracy all eventually sigh, “Life’s not fair,” or “Well, what do you want me to do about it?”
The obvious reply is that some of these hypotheticals are more realistic than others. But that puts the critics of libertarianism on extremely thin ice. None of my alternate what-ifs are fanciful. Several of them – lethal conscription, unhealthy lifestyles, denying foreigners the right to work, mendacious wars – have happened or continue to happen on a massive scale in the most democratic nations on earth. In contrast, we’ve never seen a rich, modern, libertarian society. For all we know, private charity in Libertopia would more than suffice to end absolute poverty. Stranger things have happened.
Why the double standard? The root, I suspect, is status quo bias. Most people tolerate the unpleasant ramifications of the status quo because they’re used to them. You might get conscripted and die a horrible death? Oh well, that’s life. Most people won’t tolerate the unpleasant ramifications of libertarianism because they’re used to a world where government says, “We’ll never let that happen.” But what’s so great about that assurance, when it’s bundled with a long list of other evils that governments blithely tolerate – or actively commit on a grand scale every day?